Illustration by Clara Nicoll

Farming life: Why is my council charging for green waste collection?

The recycling of organic matter mimics nature and brings massive benefits. I’m disappointed that my council is taking a step backwards
May 1, 2024

“We’re all doing our bit for the environment”. That’s what I hear so often—and it’s certainly necessary that we all play our part. It’s frustrating, then, to observe how cuts to my local council have led to it charging residents for the collection of green waste. This has made it more difficult for me as a farmer and a resident to do my bit.

Many people don’t realise just how valuable recycling green waste is. Nature wastes nothing, and in composting and re-using vegetative byproducts and food waste we mimic nature. Across our farm, we provide recycling services to humanity by spreading cattle manure and “sewage sludge” (a treated, human manure!) on our crops. We can even use the watery washings from the potato cleaning that begins the process of making your chips. And I have always enjoyed the fact that our household green waste (lawn clippings, garden vegetation and food leftovers) is collected and processed for other farmers or gardeners to use.

Collected green waste can either be sent to a composting unit or an anaerobic digester (an “AD plant”). Composting involves allowing waste to decompose—a process which creates heat that naturally kills off unwanted bacteria and provides a clean, highly nutritious fertiliser for soil on farms or in allotments and gardens. Waste sent to an AD plant produces a double benefit—it decomposes, and the heat is used to make electricity. And the gas given off in the decomposition flows directly into the grid. Both the solid waste and liquid waste produced are highly nutritious and great for soils. Both are spread on farmland and allow us to reduce the amount of energy-intensive and potentially polluting artificial fertiliser we use. The increase in organic matter makes our soil ecosystems healthier and able to hold more water, and it helps our crops grow with fewer inputs. Here’s a fact for you: an increase of 1 per cent in organic matter can mean soil is able to hold over 20,000 gallons more water per acre. We’re stopping flooding too!

I live in northwest Cambridgeshire, an area managed by Huntingdonshire District Council, and I had assumed that the removal of green waste was a permanent service, along with other core council tasks such as filling in potholes and ensuring the provision of transport for rural areas.

However, as of 1st April this year, changes to green waste collection came into force. The council will no longer be collecting green waste from every household for free, as part of the fortnightly cycle of refuse collections. It has instead launched a subscription service at a cost of £57.50 each year with an extra charge of £30 for any additional green bin. The service won’t continue in the same form as it previously did, even for subscribers. Councils are forbidden by law from charging for food waste collection, so this will be banned from the new service, and it is recommended that householders reduce their food waste, start home composting or put food waste in the black bin for landfill. Asking householders to reduce waste feels patronising and unhelpful; home composting comes with the increased risk of rats attracted to a new food source, and sending food waste to landfill is feels like a step back in time. Actually, a leap.

For householders in our area paying council rates of £160.86 a year and wanting to continue to recycle green waste, this £57.50 subscription service represents a 35.7 per cent increase in annual costs.

Charging hardworking families for a service that used to be free is going to reduce participation, when it can all be put in the black bin for landfill for free. It will also increase the risk of fly-tipping of green waste in our beautiful countryside—this is already a weekly occurrence on the lanes near our farm.

Perhaps I could set up a competing service for the 28 houses in our village, but the costs at small scale would be prohibitive for me, and I’d be banned from taking food waste, so the issue persists.

In recycling terms, the 20th century really was the “bad old days”, and by charging for this essential service, we’re headed right back there.